I'm in my ninth year of teaching. Over the course of those nine years, I've averaged roughly 100 students a year -- so 900 students have sat in my classroom and (I hope) learned a little something from me. It is sad to say that not all of those 900 students have left lasting impressions. There are many kids who I will see in the hall, I know I've had them in class before, and I cannot remember their names. There are, though, those students that stick with you long after they've left my classroom, long after they've graduated and headed out into the real world. Some of those students have stuck with you for negative reasons -- the first student to call me a "bitch" to my face, a student who left midway through the year to go to drug rehab, the student you KNOW came to class high as a kite and saw class as naptime. Most of the students I remember, though, have stuck with me for more positive reasons. Sometimes, it's whole classes that linger on even after they've gone their separate ways.
My second year of teaching, I had a particularly memorable class of English I students. It was a pretty small class -- 12 kids in all. The fact that there were so few of them allowed us to bond and get to know each other. I found myself a little more relaxed with them -- partly because I was more relaxed period as a second year teacher and partly because they were a more laid back group of kids. They were a lot of fun. They were eager, enjoyed learning, but also enjoyed having fun at the same time. They always found ways to insert a little humor into the proceedings, such as Justin who wrote an essay on the effects of not doing homework that ended up with him living in a cardboard box in an alley -- all because he'd blown off a math assignment. A year later, Justin would come home from a baseball game and drop dead of an undetected heart problem -- an event which shattered the school.
The most memorable of that class, though, was Jada. The best word to describe Jada was "spitfire." She was this tiny little thing, barely hitting five feet tall, but she had a huge personality to compensate for that lack of size. She had a voice with a permanent laugh -- and which could be heard clear down the hallway. Jada was sassy and opinionated. I knew Jada had escaped from a rough past that included being placed in foster care before ultimately being adopted by a single mom. You never would have known any of this, though, from spending time with Jada. She was constantly happy and outgoing, whether it was during class discussion or performing with the dance team.
There was a sort of happy-go-lucky air about her, best exemplified by the essay she wrote for me identifying her hero. Jada's hero was Spongebob Squarepants. She was OBSESSED with Spongebob. At first, when I saw Jada's subject, I was a little annoyed that she had, I thought, clearly not taken the topic seriously. As I read further, I not only saw that she had taken the topic seriously but that she had given it a tremendous amount of thought. Spongebob was heroic, according to Jada, for three reasons -- he was a hardworker, he was a good friend, and he always maintained a positive outlook on life. What isn't heroic about that? I realized, too, as I read that Jada had also described herself because the Jada I knew as a freshman was a hardworker, a good friend, and always positive. Over the course of the next several years, I kept in touch with Jada as she moved through high school, eventually having her in class once again her senior year when she signed up for Journalism. I was touched when she gave me a copy of her senior picture, a picture she had taken with her older sister that she admired so much.
After graduation, Jada took off for college out of state, and I didn't hear much from her. As a freshmen, she had dreamed of becoming a CSI investigator, so I assumed that she was off learning how to shine blue lights to find blood splatter.
I was wrong.
Last night, I logged into Facebook and saw a string of status updates from former students all saying roughly the same thing -- "RIP Jada." I noticed one of those students was online and we began exchanging messages that included her confirming that Jada had died and telling me to go check out google for the details. (She said a fellow classmate had called to tell her and she had done some investigating because she just could not believe it was true.) The details were shocking and heartbreaking. Not only had Jada died, but she had apparently committed suicide, hanging herself in her jail cell while awaiting trial for a double homicide. Jada had allegedly been involved in the murder of two men. If found guilty, she would have faced the death penalty. She didn't wait for a verdict.
I spent a lot of time last night crying, trying to somehow make sense of it all. How had that Jada I'd known, the girl who constantly was smiling and laughing, the girl who admired Spongebob ended up in a jail cell? What had happened? The fact of the matter is that we may never know. Her friends are left with all these questions that may be unanswerable. The fact of the matter is that we lost her somewhere along the line. That realization is maybe what hurts more than anything.
Today, I choose to remember the spunky little freshman who always made me smile and hope that wherever she may be, she's found some semblance of peace. I choose to remember the hardworker, loyal friend, and positive spirit that exemplified the Jada I knew. I will miss that girl -- no matter what her adult counterpart may or may not have done.